The Technical Genius Of Peter Sconnes
Peter Scoones, who died three years ago, was a celebrated wildlife cameraman, but many feel that the extent of his influence on image-making through his technical innovations has been under-appreciated. STEVE WARREN is among them…
BUT FOR A WINNING WAGER on the 1965 Grand National and the prescience of DIVER Magazine’s founder, Bernard Eaton, some of the world’s finest underwater documentaries might never have been made.
Though luck helped Peter Scoones to begin his career in underwater film-making, he rarely relied on it after that. Instead, an incredible fusion of knowledge and skills enabled him to become and remain one of the world’s best underwater wildlife cameramen.
TV series including Planet Earth, Life in the Freezer and Blue Planet sit alongside one-off specials such as Reef Watch, Malice in Wonderland and Great White Shark.
Scoones’ work enthralled the public and won him two Emmy’s. He had a gifted eye for shooting naturalistic sequences that told a compelling story, and his immense knowledge of marine life enabled him to film intimate behavioural moments in the wild as they happened, instead of filming captives in tanks.
Crucially, he could also craft the equipment needed to push back the frontiers of underwater film-making. He could imagine a sequence that the limitations of existing camera or lighting equipment made impossible, and then design a camera rig to make it happen.
Scoones’ death from cancer in 2014, when he was 76, robbed producers of one of their greatest talents and audiences of unknown filmic treasures, just as the BBC Natural History Unit was embarking on its most ambitious underwater filming project to date: Blue Planet 2.
Appeared in DIVER October 2017
FIONA, SCOONES’ DAUGHTER and a film producer herself, draws on a cigarette. We’re sitting in the garden of her father’s Wanstead house. “Dad was a genius,” she exults. His passing hit her hard, and she craves wider public recognition of his achievements, envisaging a television documentary about his life.
I knew Peter Scoones, though not well. I was often the beneficiary of his considerable generosity. He spoke at underwater-photography events I was hosting. Often, despite fees being agreed up front, he would decline payment. I’d do my best to even things up on the rare occasions he wanted housings and parts from my company to cannibalise.
He also gave me underwater camera equipment for my collection. I hoped to exhibit this as part of a modest tribute, and Fiona had invited me to his workshop to discuss it.
In the early 1960s, the British Sub-Aqua Club’s Brighton & Worthing branch founded an annual diving conference, attracting star players including Jacques Cousteau. BSAC had been running only a few years.
Bernard Eaton, a young journalist, took on the responsibility of creating a newsletter for BSAC members. In time, this would become DIVER.
Eaton was enthusiastic, forward-thinking and bold. In 1965 he created an underwater photography competition to go with the conference, inviting competitors from around the globe to submit their best underwater photographs and films.
One entrant was Scoones, who had studied photography in the RAF on his National Service. In Aden he had built a housing for a cine camera from Perspex aircraft windows and made his first underwater movie, Breathless Moments.
Scoones didn’t have the money to attend the festival – until Jay Trump won the National. His winnings paid his way to Brighton, and Breathless Moments won Gold for Best Amateur Film.
TV producers took note – then shied away. Scoones had made his film on standard 8mm film, a hobbyist’s format. It was unscreenable on TV. He never shot another frame of 8mm.
For a while he worked in the printing rooms of Fleet Street, then the centre of the British newspaper industry. His mastery as a colourist would later inform his work with underwater video cameras. On the side, he continued to pursue his passion as an underwater photographer, joining up with journalist Colin Doeg to co-found the British Society of Underwater Photographers in 1966.
“The genesis of BSoUP began with Bernard,” Fiona explains. “It was his foresight in staging the underwater festivals that connected the individuals who had been out there doing their own thing. Dad always credited him for that.”
This small group of hardcore enthusiasts were making much of their own equipment. Little kit was available off the shelf; it was very expensive and often very limited, regardless of price.
Advances in underwater photography often come from adapting new land-camera technology. 35mm film allowed for comparatively small, lightweight cameras to be used for reportage. In the ’50s, rangefinder cameras such as the Leica that took 36 pictures per roll were the usual choice for surface photo journalists.
Rangefinders don’t allow for the close focusing needed for macro photography, yet many housings were built for Leicas and their clones. Focus was set by guess; pictures composed through a gunsight.
Only modest wide-angle lenses were available. For working close up with smaller subjects, the “in” system was the Rolleiflex in, ideally, a Rolleimarin housing. It took only 12 pictures per load, but had a more advanced viewfinder.
It had two lenses. The upper formed the viewfinder and was used for focusing and framing; the lower took the picture. The housing had a swing-in close-up lens for macro images. However, it lacked interchangeable lenses, so could not be used for wide-angle work.
In 1959, Nikon launched the Nikon F professional 35mm camera. It was compact, and featured reflex viewing – you viewed and focused through the taking lens. This overcame the problems of near focusing and framing issues with rangefinder cameras and, unlike the Rollei, the lenses were interchangeable.
Extreme wide-angles, game-changing for underwater photographers, could now be used, making shooting large subjects such as wrecks or working in poor vis far more effective. Macro lenses that focused steplessly from infinity to just a few centimetres away simplified fish portraiture and critter photography.
The F had another breakthrough feature. SLRs traditionally had small eyepieces that made it impossible to see all the viewfinder when wearing a dive-mask.
The F’s standard viewfinder had this flaw, but it could be exchanged for a special action-finder sporting a huge eyepiece that solved the problem.
The F’s attributes were quickly recognised by Colin Doeg. “It never mattered a jot that the early camera-housings Peter made looked somewhat agricultural,” says Doeg, now 89. “What mattered was that they handled like a dream. They were as easy to use as a Rolleimarin, the housing developed by legendary underwater explorer Hans Hass and the manufacturers of the Rollieflex camera, and I don’t know of any higher accolade than that.”
“The Nikon F was ideal for risking under water in a Perspex box, but I had neither the skill nor the equipment to make one.
I eventually persuaded Peter to make a housing for it, and the result was a great success.
“He managed to find a pentaprism somewhere, so you looked through a viewfinder, like a land camera, and it had interchangeable ports – a wide-angle one for a 20mm lens, another for an 85mm.
“As far as I know, no-one else at the time had tried a short telephoto lens under water. He thought I was out of my mind even to think of it, but he still made the special port, whereas a variety of telephoto lenses or zooms are commonplace today. It proved a delightful outfit to use.”
AS THE NORTH SEA oil industry began to open up in the 1970s, Scoones turned his talent to engineering deepwater inspection cameras. He teamed up with young entrepreneur Peter Rowlands, who had recently set up Ocean Optics to sell underwater camera equipment.
With Scoones manufacturing his Underwater Visual Systems equipment for the rigs and Rowlands marketing them, the alliance proved formidable.
Fiona managed to get her hands on a newly released and very expensive Olympus camera. Incautiously leaving it with her dad, she went out. When she returned, the camera was in pieces as he probed its inner workings.
Impressed, he chose to build his MD600 commercial housing around it. This quickly became the industry standard for commercial diving. Rated to 600m, it was mountable on a sub or ROV for surveying where divers could not operate.
It had a special lens system to correct for distortion, essential for creating images for critical analysis of welds, for example. And it was point-and-shoot, so a diver had only to press the shutter-release.
“In the mid-80s I spent a lot of time with the Scoones housings, a fantastic piece of kit for commercial divers,“ says professional diver Michael Ross.
“I was often hired as both diver and photo-tech and worked with a number of different systems for sub-sea inspection purposes. I was also a keen diver-photographer in my spare time, and had a collection of Nikonos gear.
“In my opinion, the Scoones system was everything the Nikonos cameras of the day were not; industrial-strength, heavy-duty and simplicity itself for the user.
“Sure, they weren’t sexy with their cylindrical bare-bones appearance, affectionately known as the ‘biscuit tin’ in the trade.
“But possibly the really, really cool thing about the Scoones system is that even after hundreds of hours’ experience I never had a flood – which, sadly, was not the case with my own Nik equipment.”
SHORTLY BEFORE HE DIED, Scoones gave me a unique sub-sea inspection camera. The MD600 is a housing but the MC70-E is a large-format stereo underwater camera system. It’s the only one he built.
Two cameras with hand-crafted mechanisms are used to photograph from very slightly different angles. The stereo image reveals, to the trained eye, detail that a one-dimensional picture cannot.
Usually, to shoot stereo images, two independent cameras are mounted on a bracket. Scoones’ MC70-E is more advanced – the cameras are conjoined.
To my delight, when I spun off the back cover and plugged in the charger, the cameras powered up. Exposure and focus are fixed. The only control is the shutter-release. 70mm film yields far larger negatives than 35mm and the reward is much finer definition.
Scoones used top-of-the line-Schneider wide-angle lenses in the MC70-E.
A disadvantage he needed to overcome is that the superb technical excellence a land-camera lens can achieve is often badly marred by the housing optics. Usually, simple dome-ports are used to correct terrestrial wide-angle lenses for underwater use.
They correct for refraction, meaning that the lens retains its wide-angle field of view instead of narrowing down the way your eyes do behind your face-mask. However, edge detail is often soft.
To correct the Schneider’s to the standard required for inspection work, Scoones once again designed a special underwater corrector, as he had for the MD600. Instead of a basic hemispherical port, two precision-ground lenses are combined. Together, they maintain the lenses’ field of view and solve the problem of poor edge-sharpness.
It’s a heavy, costly perfectionist’s solution. The MC70-E is, I assume, the deepest-rated, most expensive point-and-shoot underwater camera ever made.
Soon the two Peters began looking for a camera to satisfy the demands of professional underwater photographers. They chose the Mamiya RB67, a medium-format studio camera, for three key features.
The film format was as large as you could reasonably handle under water given that, as formats increase in size, so do the camera bodies and lenses, resulting in ever bulkier and heavier housings.
The image produced was rectangular – the “ideal format” for front covers. Many medium-format cameras shoot square images, designed to be cropped to shape later, which sacrifices quality.
The RB67 also had an unconventional focusing arrangement. Usually lenses have a focus-ring built into the barrel that alters the position of the lens elements. The ability to focus close is often restricted unless special macro lenses are used.
The RB67 uses extendible bellows built into the camera body to adjust focus. This enables very close focusing with ordinary lenses, making it especially adept for working with smaller subjects.
Ten RB67 Marine housings were built from aluminium bearing the Ocean Optics, London name. Rowlands described it “as amazingly beautiful“, and indeed it is. It features Scoones’ trademark two-element correction port and a superb viewfinder system. Mamiya of Japan bought one for its own collection.
AROUND THE SAME TIME, the BBC Natural History Unit was planning an unprecedented wildlife series – it wanted to tell the story of evolution in a 13-part show, fronted by David Attenborough and called Life on Earth.
Fiona relates how her father took the call from Attenborough that would change his life. “Dad was an early pioneer of ROVs to carry cameras into the Christmas trees and along the pipelines of oil- and gas-rigs. David’s ambition was to film a coelacanth in the depths of the Comoros. Dad said that his ROV went out on rental only if he went with it!”
On location, the ROV jammed in the reef and was lost. As the crew dejectedly packed up their remaining kit, a fisherman reeled in a coelacanth. Scoones was able to film the animal in the shallows.
The fish kept hanging head-down, which he took as a sign of its impending death, so he kept turning it back to the horizontal. It was only later, when the fish was finally filmed from subs, that it was realised that this was its natural attitude. But Scoones and Life on Earth had scored an incredible world-first for the NHU.
Scoones’ filming career was on the up, but he continued to shoot stills. In 1980, Pentax released a new professional 35mm SLR. The LX was smaller and lighter than its competitors but, for the creative photographer, it also had a hidden advantage. It set a trend for shooting double exposures “in camera”.
This meant shooting two different photographs of different subjects, at different times and often in different locations, on a single negative. A close-up of a small coral might be combined with a wide-angle sunset shot taken from water level. Today, such images can easily be created digitally, but back in the film days they called for phenomenal skill.
“Unlike other cameras the LX was frame-accurate, meaning you could line up the film for the second shot exactly, even if you had unloaded it,” says Warren Williams, a long-time friend of Scoones and an early BSoUP member.
Scoones’ defining double exposure was his entry for the 1986 Blue Dolphin competition. He donated the LX and housing with which I assume he took this photograph to my collection.
Intriguingly, he had adapted a Nikon viewfinder to fit his Pentax. “Scoonsing” became a well-worn term to describe off-the-shelf camera equipment that he had modified or rebuilt to meet his own requirements. Messing with viewfinders was minor league.
For many years, Scoones’ producer at the NHU was Keith Scholey. “Peter’s impact came from a combination of a number of talents rarely found in one person,“ he explains. “It was Peter’s ability to build his own underwater housings, and his sophisticated understanding of electronic cameras, that drove his innovation.”
“In 1988 the BBC made Reef Watch, a highly ambitious live underwater broadcast. Peter housed the TV camera and discovered how electronic cameras could transform underwater photography by balancing the colour in the camera rather than relying on artificial light.
“Soon after, he housed his own electronic cameras and created a completely new ‘look’ for underwater films that has now been adopted by everyone.”
AT A TALK SCOONES GAVE, I remember him casually explaining how he had dived into the innards of an £80,000 Sony broadcast camera to discard part of the Bayer filter to reduce its sensitivity to green.
In the early 1990s, his quest for perfect underwater optics led him to convert Nikonos lenses, designed for the classic Nikon line of underwater film cameras, to work with broadcast video cameras.
It’s no easy task, but, get it right, and the on-screen results are unbeatable.
Dave Blackham is one of the foremost authorities on underwater optics, and knew Scoones well. His company Esprit Film & Television designs and develops some of the most advanced underwater video equipment there is.
“I’d admired Peter Scoones’ work for many years,” he told me. “He was meticulous in everything he did. I remember talking to Peter and saw that he was accumulating several Nikonos lenses in his workshop which he spoke highly of.
“The problem at the time was that most of the cameras in use for broadcast had much smaller sensors than the Nikonos lenses were intended for. Having adapted several sets of Nikonos lenses myself, I can now better appreciate why Peter was well ahead of the curve in this area.
“To get optics optimised on a standard cinema-grade underwater housing, the addition of a dome or flat port in front of a land lens changes its optical characteristics. Most of the problems crop up with wide lenses, and for the most part that’s usually what the underwater cinematographer wants to use.
“If the dome-port is large enough to accommodate the lens, this usually results in a reasonable-to-well-performing solution. Occasionally it’s excellent.
“But whatever solution you end up with, it will probably be a compromise somewhere along the line. The system will probably be very good, but not stellar.
“In the new world of 6k and 8K Digital Cinema cameras we need better optical solutions for these high-resolution cameras. The Nikonos lenses perform beautifully and are pin-sharp corner to corner. They are used for IMAX productions and also on virtually all of the high-end productions in commission at the moment.
“You can look forward to seeing the results on screen over the next couple of years. They aren’t for everyone and every project, but where they can be used there really isn’t anything to perform quite as well as they do. I think that would make Peter smile.”
Danny Kessler, whose partnership with Doug Perrine resulted in the Megafauna exhibition that premiered at the Dive Show, before travelling to various aquariums around the world, recalls Scoones sharing a deceptively simple piece of technology with him, yet another example of his willingness to help others.
“I was on a trip to photograph pilot whales in the Gibraltar Straits,” says Kessler.” The freeboard of the boat made it very hard to hold the housing below the waterline to photograph the whales bow-riding.
“Everyone was cynical, saying it couldn’t be done, until Peter mounted my Subal housing on a pole so that I could dunk it. The special interlocking tubes made from some exotic material meant it was quite lightweight, but the shutter-release was just a length of fishing line.
“I got some very close angles I’d never have achieved without Peter wanting to fix another challenge. When I saw him afterwards, all he said was: ‘What do we need to do next?’ Scoonesy was a legend. There is no other way to put it.”
Scoones had turned to polecams to enable him to avoid the intrusion even the quietest diver creates which, in turn, can change the natural behaviour of subjects or simply scare them off. Today, polecams are standard equipment for film-makers.
DOUG ALLEN IS ANOTHER exceptional wildlife cameraman, noted for work on and under the icecaps of North and South Poles. He has filmed for Survival-Anglia, Discovery and, of course, the BBC NHU on epics such as Earth, Frozen Planet and Blue Planet, and wrote behind-the-scenes book Freeze Frame.
Allan spoke at Scoones’ funeral, throwing away his notes and, choking back tears, telling of his kindness when he had repaired a special high-speed camera on which he was relying in Antarctica, and lent him his own latest camera while using an older model himself.
Allan’s comments are revealing: “Professionals claim it’s not the camera that takes the great images, it’s the person behind the lens. Well, we would say that, wouldn’t we?
“But under water, in a heavy swell, focusing on a fast-moving fish, with one all-too-short chance to put together all the shot sizes for a sequence, then you realise that the camera in your hands is also playing a big part in whether you’re going to be successful or not.
“I’d heard about Pete ever since I began filming in 1983, but it was on Life in the Freezer in 1992 that we first had the chance to work together.
“I well remember having one of his housings in my hands for the first time. The balance was beautiful, the centre of buoyancy perfect. It didn’t tip forward, or back, or roll to one side. It wasn’t some unco-operative bit of kit that was trying to make life difficult, it just sat in your hands, immediately familiar, ready to please.
“The rocker-wheel-style controls, one on the top of each of the two side-handles on the housing, fell naturally under my thumbs. Roll the left forward and back for focus, the right to alter the zoom. Both progressive: the more pressure you exerted on the control, the faster the change.
“The viewfinder, shaded at the bottom of a long black tube with a sliding dioptre in it so you could adjust it quickly but precisely for your own eyes.
“The dome at the front corrected so that everything was pin-sharp.
“The strength of Pete’s cameras was that you not only had the very best image-gathering technology in there with his specially modified electronics, but you also had an immaculately designed and engineered tool that was so ergonomically perfect that it positively enhanced the creative potential of whoever was lucky enough to be using it.
“I’ll always appreciate how generous Pete was to me, with his cameras and his experience.”
ALL THE HARDWARE APART, Scoones was a world-class diver and a superb underwater naturalist. Until his revolution, most underwater behaviour had been filmed in aquarium tanks, but using his camera that needed no “disturbing lights” his two classic Wildlife on Ones, Malice in Wonderland and Reef Encounter, showed that the underwater world could now be filmed in the same way as land-based natural history.
Shows such as Blue Planet 2 will not be filmed by Scoones, but his legacy to that and future shows remains. Keith Scholey is unambiguous: “No other individual in the past 50 years has been as important in transforming underwater wildlife documentaries.
“Today, on any underwater shoot, a huge array of equipment and techniques are used, but nearly every one of them can be traced back to the genius – Peter Scoones.”